Despite being written from a female perspective for female backpackers,
this stuff easily applies to all you handsome guys out there!
Quick disclaimer : I'm not a vulgar person but my vocabulary can be colourful. My life is R-rated and my website occasionally reflects that. Be aware of some frank language. All my photos are PG, but please read blogs before sharing with kids.
It’s so unsafe to travel as a girl!
Aren't you freaked out taking off by yourself?
I’m way too scared to travel solo.
My family / boyfriend / husband loves me too much to let me travel alone.
That last one made me laugh. I've heard it all. And yes, I do feel vulnerable travelling solo at times. A lot of times, actually. The week before I leave, I feel particularly shaky; terrible scenarios play out in my head like bad teen horror flicks. To this day, when I say goodbye to my family, I feel myself bracing as though it’s the last time I’ll ever see them. That feeling would be crippling if I allowed it to be.
I think fear is normal and inherently human; its instinctive bite protects us by keeping our behaviour in check, among other uses. I personally subscribe to a belief that lands somewhere between a dispassionate When it's your time, it's your time and a passionate Fuck it, you only live once. But there is no substitute for common sense and pragmatism. Us ladies can do pretty much anything that men can do, though we can be proactive to ensure greater safety when travelling alone.
You boys aren't off the hook, though. The news is littered with stories of attacks, and you’re an obvious target if you’re plastered. In Krakow, two guys were mugged near my hostel. Unlucky, and unfortunately inebriated, they got jumped - one of them got a knife between the ribs and a 2-night stay in the hospital, and their passports got stolen. What a miserable and horrible experience for them: stuck in a country they no longer wanted to visit, unable to leave without passports. It was one of the few times I’ve seen a grown man weep for his mum.
Personally, I felt as safe as ever backpacking Southeast Asia alone for two months, despite having been roofied in Thailand. On Night # 1, and only on Drink # 2. All the usual precautions had been taken: I held my glass by its top rim so that my hand covered my drink, and I finished it before heading to the bathroom (so as not to leave it unattended). But when the bartender spikes your drink, the safety drill is over before it even starts. I’ll be forever grateful to my two male hostel mates, who took concern over my sudden wooziness and half-carried me through the streets, back to the safety of my room. Sometimes, you must simply trust strangers; without their involvement, my night could have had a very different ending.
Precautions should be taken in conservative or religious regions of all kinds. My month in Morocco got hairy more often than I care to recall, although I’m not sure my male companion and I were ever in real physical danger. (The following rock n’ roll moments did NOT manage to taint my memories of Morocco, what with soooo many warm-hearted, welcoming, kind locals that we met throughout). In the fantastically ancient markets of Marrakesh, we were followed and threatened with beatings when we wouldn’t hire the cons posing as guides. A few men blocked my exit from their store; they only allowed me to leave once I flirted and convinced them that my ‘husband’ handled my money. (I remember thinking, Smile, bat your eyelashes and stick your boobs out. The only thing more pathetic than my performance is that it worked). A few times, we were menaced after walking by certain restaurants and not sitting down to eat. Despite being carefully covered up, my ass/boobs were grabbed twice. A female police officer approached me in the streets because the guys that were (apparently) following me had ‘poor intentions’. I didn’t allow her to escort me straight to my hotel, for fear of still being watched by these fellows, so she dropped me off at a nearby café.
OK. I realize I might be freaking you out. (Sorry, mom and dad!) Let’s do the math game. In my accumulated 3+ years of solo backpacking, there were relatively few incidents where I felt unsafe. And how many of them were falsely-perceived threats, or an overactive imagination? There’s no way to know, especially when everything turned out fine. The most bone-chilling, frightful situation in which I’ve found myself? Just after suppertime, stone-cold sober, in über-organized, ‘’ultra-safe’’, super-efficient and civilized Germany. Go fucking figure.
Let me be clear: 99% of my time abroad, I’ve felt safe, both alone and in the company of others. I would return to all of these beautiful countries in a heartbeat. Yes, even Morocco and Germany. Especially Morocco, actually... So, how can one’s welfare be guaranteed? It can’t, darling. You can barely safeguard it in your hometown. Generally speaking, caution practiced at home is caution required overseas. And barricading yourself in your house apparently isn’t good for you. So go out there and take a chance on the world. But be proactive about it, and you can place a whole lotta safety in your own hands.
Before You Go
* Research your destination; do your homework. Google it, watch travel videos on YouTube, read travel blogs, buy a travel guidebook. This stuff is fun, but it’ll go a long way toward settling your nerves. Plus, it’ll get you excited and remind you why you chose your destination in the first place.
* Figure out travel and health insurance -- know what you are and aren’t covered for. Bring a photocopy of your policy with you and send a hard copy to your emergency contact. I wasn’t covered for skydiving but went anyway, and if my parachute hadn’t opened, my parents would have had to remortgage their house to repatriate my body. (Oops.) Don’t be a dumbass; travel insurance is massively important.
* Visit your country’s government advisory about travelling to your destination. Take any yellow or red flags seriously.
* Get the proper immunization or medications - I’m talking yellow fever, dengue fever, malaria, hepatitis, traveller’s diarrhea, etc. Visit your destination’s government website to know what you need.
* Leave room in your schedule for spontaneity. Don’t pinpoint the predictable, touristy places out of insecurity or fear. (Don’t forget, the pickpockets target the touristy places.) Anxiety can make us over-plan everything. Stuff could go wrong anywhere ; learn to accept it and trust that you’ll go with the flow if shit ever hits the fan.
Getting From A to B
* In some countries, dropping more coin for daytime transportation (rather than riding the cheaper trains or buses at night) is a smart move. Keep your bags close and your essentials closer.
* If you know you’ll be hopping into a taxi at the end of the night, search out legit companies ahead of time. Whenever you've got your large backpack, insist on keeping it in the backseat with you, not in the trunk or boot of the vehicle. I’ve never tried Über, so I can’t attest to it.
* When arriving in a new city, know what hostel you're headed for and know how to get there; don't look like a target coming out of the airport, train or bus station. If taking a cab, sniff out your route online beforehand (Ex: GoogleMap how to get from the train station to your hostel), then take a screenshot of the route. Show it to the driver to let them know that A) you know where you’re going and B) you know how to get there. Looking as though you know where you’re going (even if you don’t) can save you trouble if your driver gets payouts to bring unsuspecting clients to sponsored hotels (common in India and certain Asian countries). It can also save you money by NOT being driven in loops and circles all over the city while the meter ticks on. A few drivers, in a country I won't mention, actually refused to bring me to my hostel when I showed them the photo of my route; they couldn’t be bothered to help me without the opportunity to rip me off. The bastards.
* Stop hitchhiking. (Except m-a-y-b-e in New Zealand. New Zealand rocks. But I still don’t condone hitching rides.) And don’t pick up people off the street if you’re alone in your rental vehicle. Or if it’s nighttime. These are no-brainers.
* Befriending other girls can go a long way toward providing real security. Safety in numbers is a legit thing. So don’t be afraid to get comfy in your hostel’s social room - start chatting to other travellers. Learn people’s names, smile, look into their eyes, make a connection. Don’t underestimate its worth!
* Don't tell strangers (locals, random backpackers not staying in your hostel, merchants...) that you're travelling solo. A few times when I’ve felt uncomfortable, I pretended to be waiting for a (fictitious) boyfriend or husband to arrive. I’ve even given weirdos in my hometown a fake name and fake workplace. Overkill? Maybe; perhaps they were harmlessly flirting, perhaps they were up to no good. There’s no way to really know.
* For fuck’s sake girls, I can't say it enough because I see it all the time : Quit getting sloshed in clubs and trusting strangers. That includes that cute guy you just met at the bar or that friendly taxi driver. Join your hostel’s organized pub crawls, make friends with other participants and once you’re out there having fun, don’t leave any soldiers behind.
A Few Minor Details
* Deliberately choose hostels with higher safety and location ratings. Unfortunately, these are usually the more expensive hostels, but there’s a reason for that higher price tag, peeps.
* Establish a routine. Go to the same coffee shop every morning, the same fruit market stalls…. People will start recognizing your face and conversations will be easier to maintain.
* Wearing a fake wedding ring can make all the difference in certain conservative countries; that plastic rock helped get some unwanted attention off me. Unfortunately, it was then largely deflected onto my travel partner and ‘husband’, who was naturally regarded as the one responsible for the parting of our money and for authority over his ‘wife’. (Disclaimer : I will always respect traditional cultures that have a high regard for matrimony. But as a woman, it bites when wearing a cheap plastic ring determines your level of safety or personal worth.)
* Ditto with a headscarf. Again, I’m not getting political or religious or cultural here; it’s about safety. If you feel less vulnerable wearing a headscarf, do it appropriately and respectfully (you can always wear it à la Marilyn Monroe). This isn’t a Halloween costume, people - it’s not cultural appropriation if it ensures your safety.
I Got A Feeling ...
* Learn to trust your gut, then act on it. I think women are particularly sensitive to our gut feelings, probably because we’re so used to rummaging through the mess of stuff we feel on a minute-to-minute basis. You hear a voice in your head or you have a sinking sensation in your tummy? That means something! Even if you feel like you’re exaggerating or you need to be a bit rude, do whatever you can to change your situation. You’ll learn the art of saying « no » quickly and convincingly. You'll learn to put your bitch face on, if need be. You'll allow these opportunities to grow yourself a new set of balls. This is a good thing, girls!
Anything and everything that can happen to a woman in a foreign country can also happen --and has happened-- in her own country. Travel is simply a change in one’s geographical status. I don’t think the world is a scarier place for women to travel; the world is a scarier place for women. Period.
So is this advice fool-proof? Of course not.
Do I make errors in judgement? Pfft. Obviously.
But to quote one of the few chick flicks I like: You can't leave everything to fate, she's got a lot to do. Sometimes, you must give her a hand.
Happy (and safe!) travels, my friend. xx
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